What to do with memorials and monuments? A reflection on memory

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial - Washington DC

This past weekend, the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was finally dedicated after Hurricane Irene washed out the original planned celebration.  As a memorial, it has been critiqued for some elements that seem discordant with the man it is supposed to be recalling.   (For my own review of the memorial, please follow this link: “Remembering MLK, A review and reflection on the new memorial.“)  This brings up many questions about memorials and monuments–controversy has swirled around every edifice that has been built upon the National Mall–some of which were raised surrounding the 9/11 ceremonies last month.  It has prompted me to consider the value and purpose of memorials and monuments, quite apart from aesthetic considerations, which I am less qualified to do.

Last month, in anticipation of 9/11 ceremonies, David Rieff wrote “After 9/11: The limits of remembrance” for Harper’s.  In it, he expressed a certain hesitation with the memorials and the planned ceremonial events in conjunction with the opening and dedication of memorials in New York City, Arlington, VA and Shanksville, PA, in addition to countless others unveiled around the country.  He stated, “The fact that the opening of the 9/11 memorial will mark an event that, to some degree at least, has been seared into  the lives and consciousness of most Americans should not obscure the fact that the ghost at the banquet of all public commemoration is always politics–above all, the mobilization of national solidarity.”  He goes on to compare this to the national holidays such as ANZAC day for Australians and New Zealanders (honoring soldiers who perished in the First and Second World Wars), French Bastille Day and our own Fourth of July as ceremonies that create “large-scale solidarity.”  Further, “It is about the reaffirming of group loyalty rather than the establishing of historical accuracy, let alone the presenting of an event in all its moral and political complexity.”  Rieff makes a valid point.

Rieff is judicious in his understanding of those who still mourn the losses suffered in the attack, but is critical of how lines are drawn between remembrance and history, if they are drawn at all:

It is important not to exaggerate.  Whatever meaning history eventually assigns to the attacks of 9/11–and though they are often conflated, history is the antithesis of remembrance–it is highly unlikely that these commemorative events will do any harm to America as a society, even if there is not likely to be very much to learn from it either, any more than there is from eulogies at a funeral.  And in an important sense, for the relatives and friends of those who died on that day, remembrance will surely afford some measure of recognition and consolation, though of course not of closure, which is one of the more malign and corrosive psychological fantasies of our age.  (The Latin phrase “De mortuis nil nisi bonum,” “Of the dead speak only well,” has often been parodied with the quip, “De mortuis nil nisi bunkum,” but this is wrong.  There is nothing admirable about candor during a commemoration, just something childish and conceited.)  Remembrance is not valued for shedding much light on the truth in all its nuance and ambiguity.  And that is entirely appropriate.  The problem is both the degree to which remembrance nourishes illusions about how long human beings can rememberand, far more seriously, the potentially grave political and historical consequences it can engender.  After all, to remember may not just mean to grieve; it may also mean to harbor a vision of securing justice or vengeance long after it is time to put the guns away.

~ David Rieff, “After 9/11: The limits of remembrance”  (accessed 9/9/2011 Harper’s Magzine, harpers.org)

Rieff continues, arguing that remembrance, especially collective remembrance is often the fuel that fires ongoing enmity long after it is due to fall away.  That Americans have let go of Pearl Harbor is evident in that no American is likely to have turned down donations following the tsunami because of that now “ancient” attack.  But, in the case of the Bosnian War, Rieff argues, would an ability to forget past injustices not have been better than the senseless slaughter predicated on collective remembrance?  It raises reasonable questions about memorials and history.  Are the two antithetical?  Does remembrance harm history?  Are monuments and memorials really valuable to the societies that raise them or are they detrimental in perpetuating myths and legends?  (His discussion about the real physical limits of human memory for grand events is less germane to my purpose in writing, but no less interesting.)

Smithsonian "exhibit" memorializing 9/11 for the Tenth Anniversary

In German, the word for memorial or monument is Denkmal.  The noun, Mal, means a “marker,” in this case, and Denk comes from the noun, “thought,” or the verb, “to think.”  (Ehren, means “honor,” and Ehrenmal is sometimes used to refer to a memorial, but it is not as common as Denkmal.)  Memorials or monuments in Germany, then, are “thinking markers” as opposed to simply being markers for remembrance as is implied in “memorial.”  (This should not necessarily assume that the German memorial looks or functions differently, but perhaps that there is a difference in the cultural approach.)  This is not typically how Americans regard memorials and monuments.  We tend to think of them as remembrances, which may imply reflection, but not necessarily.  The word memorial, literally means “to preserve memory” through artificial means whether by planting, structure, literature or other artwork.  Both memorial and monument are words of Latin derivation meaning to remember.  As such there is a real complication with memorials and monuments: if they are built for memory, how do we remember?  Might it not be better if they were built with thinking in mind?  Do we sacrifice history to a contrived collective memory, as Rieff suggested?

I think it interesting to compare the memorials that have been built upon the National Mall.  To the memory of individual people, the nation has the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the FDR Memorial and now the MLK Memorial.  Of these, the Washington is a mere architectural feat, a simple obelisk that could as much mean “Washington” in reference to the city as to the general and the first president.  The Lincoln and Jefferson are both completed in a neo-classical style—a reference to the classical inspirations for our government in the Athenian democracy and the Roman republic.  Each is adorned with the man’s quotes.  The Jefferson’s quotes reflect the conflict he witnessed and the rhetorical battle in which he engaged during the American Revolution.  Lincoln’s quotes are from the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural speech—both prompting reflection on the Civil War and the injustices of slavery.  The FDR is similarly engraved with quotes, but is a sprawling affair that attempts to mark the historical events of his four terms.  FDR’s quotes, some of which are awkwardly truncated at the “end” of the memorial to make him more of a dove than a hawk, are those made during the great national crises of the Great Depression and World War II.  The memorial goes out of its way to represent the eras and FDR’s response—one may debate how successfully it is achieved, but the intention is clearly apparent.

Naturally, none are critical of the remembered presidents; the Jefferson Memorial does not acknowledge his slaves or affairs he had with them; the Lincoln does not acknowledge his suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War; nor does the FDR Memorial acknowledge the controversies surrounding his policies, his attempt at stacking the Supreme Court, his “secret” “Redlining” policy built into the FDIC insurance codes, or his executive order, creating the Japanese Internment.  Does this obscure history, then, to have these memorials which remember these individuals selectively?  What historical knowledge does the average visitor bring?  If they have little or no additional knowledge, is this the only side of the coin they have later in life?  Does this, in fact, perpetuate the national myths we prefer to the history about which scholars are reasonably confident?

Seen from the benches facing the northern wall of quotes and looking South toward the Stone of Hope and the Mountain of Despair

The newest addition to the National Mall and Tidal Basin is, of course, the MLK Memorial.  (Readers should note that I omit a discussion of the George Mason Memorial, honoring the writer of the Virginia Declaration of Rights—inspiring the American Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution—and one of the Virginian delegates to Philadelphia during the construction of the Constitution.  His is a small though pleasant affair, seated roughly across the road from the Jefferson Memorial, arguably off the National Mall proper.)  It is an unusual memorial in many respects.  Its original design was denounced by the board that must approve it, but any changes from it are indistinguishable in the final draft.  I will not rehash old discussions, here, but I will point out that the man who is famous for leading the Civil Rights movement, fighting unjust laws with civil disobedience, non-violent protest and religious sermons and speeches, is not remembered in his memorial for any of these things.  There is no reference to Selma or Birmingham.  There is reference to his disapproval of the Vietnam War and to a Nobel Peace Prize, but not to his experiences, sufferings or plans, not to his history.  The quotes that are used for his remembrance are largely ambiguous statements (in at least one case, misquoted), and while they are statements about peace, one has to wonder if this is not more of the same wishful thinking that Rieff referred to above.  (To see which quotes are included click on this link: “Which MLK quotations would YOU have included in the new memorial?”)

Do we understand from this memorial that MLK’s work is done, let by-gones be by-gones, better not to dredge up those old conflicts?  We are all at peace now, our two races, we have no more problems between us?  The work is done?  I can only imagine that these would be hotly contested notions.  Is better to move on, or should there be an acknowledgement of the courage to fight repression and injustice?  What do young generations really get out of the memorial?  What do they remember?  This case is not about acknowledging faults about a man who is nonetheless worth recalling, rather it is about remembering the collective faults of ourselves, a nation that legalized prejudice against a race of people.  Or is this one of those points, as with Bosnia, that Rieff mentioned for which forgetting is preferable to harboring vengeance years later?  If that is the purpose, it is does not have that feeling in the memorial—the sense is that the legacy has been high-jacked for the purposes of critiquing current conflicts.

So, what purpose do these memorials serve?  Is there a conflict of interest between remembrance and history?  Does remembrance only inspire legend or myth-making; does it only tell half the story?  Do we neglect history as a discipline that requires careful consideration and thought about what people said and did in a time that is not our own and differs in many ways from our own?  Is any useful understanding achieved from the visits and time spent in and among these memorials?  What do they teach in the end?  They are not museums, which share some of the same limitations—subject to the memorial plans of the curator and sometimes as guilty of ambiguous, laudatory memory—but which also have more historical information built into exhibits, more room to ask questions about past events and directly challenge the viewer as opposed to mere quotes and symbolic art.

It is incumbent upon us all to treat memorials and monuments, not just as remembrances of past peoples or events, but to delve into a greater understanding, to self-educate.  Naturally, memorials are themselves products of their time, more so than the individual remembered (there is nothing so astonishing—and yet, sadly, unsurprising—than holding a picture of the Lincoln Memorial’s dedication, segregated in its seating, next to a picture of the 1963 March on Washington and King’s “I Have a Dream Speech”).  Anyone who visits the MLK Memorial should take it upon themselves to listen to the “I Have a Dream” speech, should read the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and should understand the crucible that King and his colleagues created for this country with the Civil Rights Movement.  Many debate whether it or Thurgood Marshall’s legal battles were most effective in changing America—I think it is a debate each American history student should explore, study and weigh in on and while they’re at it throw the Black Panthers into the mix, as well.  Similarly, we should not enter any other memorial or monument passively and unthinkingly.  One should be able to arrive at the site and think about it, contemplate it and where necessary critique it.  Each individual must do the heavy-lifting alone, because these memorials are not designed to be educational tools, nor even necessarily “thinking markers” so much as they are memorials and monuments to someone’s contrived remembrance.  But, even with memory—which we understandably value—we must be critical, inform it and confine it with history.  It is necessary to be on guard, because even the lessons from our history classes can be overwritten with the strength of collective memory, infused into our culture with memorials and monuments.

The Lincoln Memorial


1 Comment

Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Historian's Journal, Travel

One response to “What to do with memorials and monuments? A reflection on memory

  1. Pingback: Using memorials and monuments educationally, not “indoctrinationally” | Brush off the dust! History now!

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